Book review Tuesday: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings last night and was so bummed out by both the ending and my own reaction to the book that I immediately had to start something more upbeat (in this case, Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which is excellent so far) in order to take my mind off of The Interestings before going to sleep. And now I need to figure out whether I liked or disliked this book, because it could go either way.



This was one of those books, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, about which I had heard a tremendous amount of buzz before I read it. However, unlike AVFTGS, I didn’t put off reading this one until everyone and their mother had read it. Instead, I snapped it right up onto my Kindle shortly after it came out. However, all of the aforementioned buzz was both a blessing and a curse in terms of my enjoyment of this book. At first, I had read and heard only positive reviews. This novel had been compared to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and, well, they had me at Eugenides. Barrie Hardymon, a guest contributor on one of my favoritest podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, raved about the book, and I tend to like her suggestions, so all systems were go. And, indeed, as soon as I started reading this book, I loved it. And then, along the way, things started to change.

First, a very brief plot summary of the book: the story starts off at a summer camp for the arts in the Berkshires in 1974. A group of smart, privileged teenagers who enjoy, variously, music, pretentious literature, animation, drama, and weed, come together as friends and deem themselves “The Interestings.” (This opening, while obnoxious, nonetheless rings true, because don’t all teenagers labor under the delusion that they and their friends are The Most Interesting People in the World?) The novel then traces the lives of these five friends — Jules, Ethan, Ash, Goodman, and Jonah — over the next forty-odd years, as some excel and others flounder.

This book has a lot of great stuff in it. I bookmarked so many passages on my Kindle that I can hardly choose which ones to share, because Wolitzer’s observations about life are all so on-the-nose. I read several reviews that describe this novel as “astute,” and that’s a perfect word to use; Wolitzer, through her prose, nails so many universal human experiences and emotions: jealousy, dissatisfaction, early love, sadness, euphoria, nostalgia. Wolitzer’s best observations, though, are around friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved a scene in which Jules, a character through whose perspective much of the novel is filtered, and her husband Dennis go out to dinner with their lifelong friends Ethan and Ash and another couple that Ethan and Ash are friends with. Ethan and Ash are now much wealthier than Jules and Dennis, and Jules is acutely aware of how different the two couples’ lives have become, especially when it comes to new friends.

The friends of Ash and Ethan in question had been a couple of recent friendship vintage. The husband was a portfolio manager, slightly older, and the wife was an interior designer who also ran a literacy program in East Harlem. Both of them were lithe and angled, their clothes made of linen, and the dinner that night hadn’t been awkward so much as depressing. The portfolio manager and his wife had nothing to ask Jules and Dennis. It wouldn’t have even occurred to them to ask them anything. The fact that all the interest flowed toward that couple did not seem at all unusual to them. They neutrally accepted the one-way flow, and Dennis in particular kept the conversation going, wanting to know the answers to various questions. Once again, he was interested in other people; it was an admirable quality generally, but in this case it irritated Jules, who didn’t want these people to think they should accept other people’s interest as their due. She herself, in her mild rage, began to ask them question after question. “What are the literacy rates in our country?” she drunkenly demanded of the wife. And, barely having listened to the answer, she turned to the husband and said, “Since when did ‘portfolio’ start to refer to money, not artwork? It’s like the way if someone’s an analyst, it no longer means they’re Freudian, it means they study the stock market.”

There are also a lot of trenchant observations about feminism, which are illuminated through the female characters’ struggles to find balance among career aspirations, motherhood, and marriage. I also enjoyed Wolitzer’s descriptions of the ways in which various characters reckon with their need to be — or at least, to feel — interesting, special, and unique, even into adulthood. Like I said, Wolitzer packs a lot of great stuff into this book, and manages to keep things interesting (pardon the phrasing) despite the large scope of the book (40+ years, competing plot-lines, etc.). So there’s a lot of Good here.

Now, though, we need to talk about The Bad. I made the mistake, midway through this book, of reading some more reviews, like this one from The New York Times, this one from the Washington Post, and this one from The Boston Globe. I can’t remember what compelled me to do this — I try to never read reviews when I am mid-book — but I think something must have been bothering me about the book and I wanted to suss out if I was the only one feeling the way I felt. Instead of echoing my own observations back to me, thereby affirming my experience of the novel, these reviews gave me other things to focus on. For example, the WaPost review, which was pretty harsh, noted:

So “The Interestings” gets bogged down with long-winded explications and gratuitous, self-serious and often awkwardly phrased historical references: “It would be ten years before the notorious case in which another prep-school boy attacked a girl in Central Park. . . . And it would be thirteen years before a young female investment banker out for a jog in the park at night was raped and beaten into a coma.” The writing here has all the weary cheerlessness of a participant approaching the end of an all-day charity walkathon. 

Ouch. After reading that, I started to notice that, yes, Wolitzer does try to infuse the characters’ lives with historical meaning, or at least to situate every one of their life events into some larger cultural trend, which gets irritating, and feels unnecessary and forced.

But these reviews didn’t point out what bothered me most about the book, and that is the focus on the character of Jules, who Wolitzer paints as the sort-of, almost, kinda heroine of this story. I found Jules hard to take and didn’t understand, despite what I suspect was meant to be a sympathetic portrayal of her, why she had friends at all. Jules to me was grating, insecure, boring, needy, and remarkably unspecial. Even when Jules made observations that rang true to me, I attributed those observations to Meg Wolitzer rather than to Jules Jacobson, which was probably not the intent of the author. I felt that Wolitzer’s sympathies with Jules were misplaced; to me, there were far more sympathetic characters available in Ethan or even Jonah. What’s most baffling to me was the fact that Ethan Figman, the only member of the troupe of Interestings who actually met with wild success as an adult (and, arguably, was the only one ambitious or talented enough to pursue such success), carried an undying flame for Jules throughout the book. What started off as a fairly inexplicable teenage crush at camp evolved into a deeply inexplicable non-requited love into adulthood; Ethan thought Jules was just the bees knees, and I just don’t understand why. It’s like Jules is a Mary Sue but without any of the good qualities.

Finally, the book’s lumbering, depressing end, with more tragedy than was perhaps strictly necessary, left me feeling deflated. I don’t demand a happy ending from every book I read, but the ending of this book felt particularly hopeless. I like a teeny bit of redemptive hope tucked into any depressing ending, and I didn’t find that here.

Did I hate this book? No. Did I love it? Well, yes, parts of it. But overall, The Interestings was a mixed bag for me. Final verdict: I would recommend it because mostly, it was a good read. It was packed with sharp observations and the characters’ stories did carry emotional weight. But the book was unsatisfying to me in two key ways: its putative heroine, who was disappointing, and the ending, which was depressing. Still, this book made an impression on me, and the fact that I’ve written so much here trying to sort out my reactions to it is probably a sign that it’s worth picking up.

Cape Town and Durban

I’m back from a lovely, week-long vacation with my cousin Amanda (and, for the last two days, Al). I met Amanda at the Joburg airport on Monday — she had flown in from San Francisco, via London — and we went straight to Cape Town for four days. While there, we got up to the usual Cape Town things: Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope, wineries, penguins, seafood, shopping. It was glorious, as expected.

Here are a few photos of our visit:

View from Table Mountain
View from road to Table Mountain
Camps Bay
Camps Bay
Beachside playground
Beachside playground
Amanda and me at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch
Amanda and me (and a dog) at Jordan Winery, Stellenbosch
Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch
Water lilies at Stark Conde winery, Stellenbosch
Stark Conde
Stark Conde
Great views along the Cape
Great views along the Cape
Baby ostrich being petted
Baby ostrich being petted
Beach ostrich
Wild ostrich

The ostrich farm we visited was a total kick. Ostriches are weird looking to begin with, but baby ostriches are both extremely weird AND cute. They look like baby dinosaurs. I took a short video of some of the babies:


Amanda and I had a great time in Cape Town, but on Friday morning, we left and flew two hours northeast to Durban, the third largest city in South Africa, known for its beaches, sub-tropical climate, Indian food, and adventure sports. We stayed at the truly lovely Rosetta House, where Al met us later that evening.

View from our veranda, Rosetta House
View from our veranda, Rosetta House

Durban was awesome. It’s a very relaxed, pretty city, with beautiful homes, lots of lush green plant life, warm beaches, and cute outdoor cafes and bars. One of the things that struck me most about Durban is how ethnically integrated it is, as compared to Cape Town or Joburg or, really, any other South African city or town I’ve ever visited. I was pleasantly surprised to see people of different races eating at the same restaurants, drinking at the same bars, hanging out on the same beaches. I know that sounds sort of sad, that this is something I’d be surprised by, but South Africa, despite its claims of being a rainbow nation, can often feel very segregated. Durban was a refreshing change. Al and I kept remarking on it (“Oh, wow, there are actually white people AND black people AND Indian people at this [bar/restaurant/beach/garden]!”) which tells you a little something about what we’re used to in Joburg.

We went to the beach on Saturday, which was beautiful and relaxing. The waters of the Indian Ocean in Durban aren’t as warm as they were in Mozambique, but they weren’t freezing, either (unlike the water in Cape Town). I went for a dip and came out feeling refreshed (and salty).


On Saturday night, we ate at 9th Avenue Bistro, which offers a six-course wine pairing tasting menu, and it was fantastic. The food and service were outstanding; however, the ambience was a bit dampened by the fact that the restaurant looks out over a parking lot. Oh, well. Still highly recommended!

On Sunday, our last day in Durban, we spent a few hours wandering around the gorgeous Durban Botanical Gardens, which were heavenly. The Gardens are Africa’s oldest surviving botanical gardens and they are very well maintained. I took a ton of pictures because everything was so beautiful.

Giant tree (and Al)
Giant tree (and Al)
Bamboo copse
Bamboo copse
Gingko seed?
Gingko seed?
Bees on dahlia
Bees on dahlia


One of my favorite parts of the Gardens was a little pond that was filled with all sorts of interesting birds, including an African Spoonbill, a giant pelican (which I think might be a pink backed pelican?), a big red-beaked goose, and several kinds of ducks and ducklings.

Pelican (Pink Backed, I think)
Paddle beaked bird
African Spoonbill

So, this was a trip of many odd bird sightings: pelicans, spoonbills, ostriches, penguins, and, while we were in Cape Town, a flock of wild flamingos flying overhead. Pretty cool.

Now I am back in Joburg and beginning to acclimate to the chilly weather and the fact that I have to, you know, start working again. Amanda is on safari now and will be back in Joburg on Thursday, so I have a little more cousin time to look forward to. In the meantime, it’s back to the grind: blogging and writing. Luckily, I happen to really enjoy the grind. Vacation is great, but the grind is good, too.

The controversial Dove Real Beauty sketch artist ads

I am nervous this morning as I write this post; my stomach’s all fluttery, and not really in a good way. After last week’s kerfuffle over sexism, HLS, and internet trolls, I am a little hesitant to dip my toe into the waters of internet controversy yet again, especially on a topic related to feminism, but I’ve been thinking hard about something and I want to use my blog to help me process it, because, you know, it’s my blog. So, buckle up, trolls and non-trolls! Here we go, again.

This week, several of my friends posted on social media this ad by Dove:

I watched this video at eight o’clock in the morning the other day and cried. I’m not ashamed to admit it! This ad got to me in a way that advertising rarely does; the last commercial I cried at was a Folger’s commercial and that was years ago. Okay, maybe that one Google ad made me mist up a little bit but seriously, if you don’t mist up at that Google ad, you might be a robot.

Anyway! I thought that the Dove ad was moving and beautifully shot and, well, important. If you haven’t watched it, in a nutshell: Dove brought several women to this artsy abandoned warehouse, sat them each down behind a curtain and asked each one to describe herself to a forensic artist, who then produced sketches based on the women’s self-descriptions. The organizers of the “experiment” (and I get that it’s not a scientific experiment, but I’m going to refer to it that way, anyway — everyone just relax) had asked each woman ahead of time to become friendly with a stranger. The strangers were then brought in front of the sketch artist to describe the women, et voila!, at the end, the sketch artist had two sketches for each woman: one that she had described of herself, and one that a stranger had described of her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sketches as described by the women themselves were harsh and unflattering, whereas the sketches as described by strangers were much “gentler” and more flattering.

So, I watched this thing, I shed some tears, and here was my takeaway from it: we women need to go easier on ourselves. The way we view ourselves might not be — in fact, probably is not — accurate. We should give ourselves the same consideration as we would a stranger. We should look at ourselves gently and appreciate our own beauty, in whatever shape or form it may take. That’s all. And for me, that message is powerful, because I’ve struggled with my own self-image for as long as I can remember. I was the type of little kid who always thought I was fat, or ugly, and those insecurities have waxed and waned over the years, but they’re always there, even now. Seeing this ad was a good reminder of how distorted my own self-image can be, and how unproductive it is to view my own physical being negatively. So, for me, this ad was positive and uplifting and moving.

Then, I started seeing some of my other friends on Facebook posting articles criticizing the ad for being anti-woman. Say what? This article on the blog jazzylittledrops, for example, argues that while the Dove ad has some positive features, it is mostly negative, because:

“it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women, I guess).” 

The author of the blog post, Jazz, goes on to criticize the ad for not featuring enough women of color, and for emphasizing the positivity of physical features such as thinness and youngness. Hmm. My first reaction to this is that a single ad cannot be all things to all people. Would it have been better if Dove was able to round up a rainbow of women of every shape, size, and age? Sure. To be fair, there were several black and Asian women featured in the ad, but Jazz notes that the black women in the ad were “lighter skinned,” so I guess they don’t count? I’m not sure what the ideal mix of races and ages would have been for Jazz, but apparently, Dove missed the mark. I find this particular criticism a tad disingenuous, because if you look at other Dove campaigns, they have made a real effort to use women of different sizes, shapes, ages, and skin tones in their advertising. For example, check out these images:



blog dove girls dove-campaign-for-real-beauty-1614


In her post, Jazz harps on the fact that some of the strangers in the ad, while describing the women they had met, emphasized features such as a “thin face” or “blue eyes,” and argues that this “kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of ‘beauty’: young, light-skinned, thin.” I suppose the strangers’ comments can perhaps be put down to the fact that our society values thinness and whiteness. Or it could be that the particular woman being described was thin and white. Or it could be that those were the features that stuck out to this particular stranger, for any number of reasons. So I guess it’s fair for Jazz to criticize the ad for focusing on those features rather than others, but the fact that the end results — the sketches as described by strangers — were not a parade of thin, white, blonde women is telling. Dove wasn’t trying to convince all of these women that they are, in fact, beautiful Barbie dolls with blonde hair and perfect smiles; Dove was simply presenting an alternate vision of their looks, as perceived by strangers, presumably with no particular agenda to promote.

Jazz concludes that the ad sends the disturbing message to women that beauty, rather than courage or smarts, is what we should value in ourselves. She writes:

What you look like should not affect the choices that you make. It should certainly not affect the friends you make—the friends that wouldn’t want to be in relationship with you if you did not meet a certain physical standard are not the friends that you want to have. Go out for jobs that you want, that you’re passionate about. Don’t let how good looking you feel like you are affect the way way that you treat your children. And certainly do not make how well you feel you align with the strict and narrow “standard” that the beauty industry and media push be critical to your happiness, because you will always be miserable. You will always feel like you fall short, because those standards are designed to keep you constantly pressured into buying things like make up and diet food and moisturizer to reach an unattainable goal. Don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial. You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know. But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful. 

Okay, so let’s hold the phone right there. First of all, I agree that “what you look like should not affect the choices that you make.” However, the way you feel about your looks very well could impact the choices you make. I know this for a fact, from my own life: if you feel like you’re gross, or ugly, or fat, or whatever, it absolutely does impact the way you interact with the world. It affects everything. Really. The message of the Dove ad, as I perceived it, was not: “You must be good looking in order to make positive choices,” but rather, “Change the way you see yourself and it will impact your choices positively.” There’s a huge difference between those two messages. As a person with a whole bunch of interests and skills and thoughts and feelings that add up to make me me, I certainly don’t believe that my external beauty is the most important thing about me, and I wouldn’t support an ad that sent that message. But that’s not what the Dove ad was trying to say. And I think it’s insulting to women like me who were moved by this ad to suggest that we’re being brainwashed by some sort of patriarchal, capitalist, ethnocentric (etc., etc., insert your favorite negative “ism” here) cultural narrative about beauty because it struck a chord with us. I’m a savvy enough consumer of media to be able to tell when a company’s selling me a bill of goods. While I appreciate Jazz’s reminder that I am “so, so much more than beautiful,” I already know that, logically. But to pretend that women’s self-perception of our looks is not important to the way we move through the world is unrealistic at best, and disingenuous and even cynical at worst.

Finally, Jazz points out that because Dove is owned by Unilever, a company that also owns brands such as the odious AXE body spray, which is infamous for their sexist approach to advertising, we should discount Dove’s marketing campaigns as so much patriarchal smoke and mirrors. While I think it is important to be a critical media consumer and to consider carefully a company’s agenda in promoting a certain product, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the genuine emotional reactions that Dove’s ads inspire in women because Dove’s parent company has promoted anti-woman messages to promote other products. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible to appreciate the Dove ad’s message without buying Dove products or otherwise supporting Unilever, which, by the way, also owns such socially conscious brands as Ben & Jerry’s, so if you’re gonna boycott Unilever, say buh-bye to Chubby Hubby. While I think it’s important not to support brands that promote a message you actively disagree with or are offended by, I also think that Dove should get some recognition as one of the few women’s beauty brands that has made an effort to disseminate a broader, more diverse conception of beauty.

Maybe Jazz and I are just coming at this from two fundamentally different perspectives. Perhaps she has a much stronger self-image than I do, and so the ad didn’t resonate with her in the same way it did with me. That’s fine. We’re allowed to have different reactions to media without accusing one another of being duped or brainwashed or suckers. What do you all think? Did Dove’s ad hit the mark or miss it entirely?

(By the way, I hope we can all agree that this is hilarious.)

Sound advice Thursday: The bad first impression friend

Dear Steph,

A good friend has been interviewing for jobs for quite a while and is feeling very defeated. At first, family emergencies kept coming up, so it was okay that she hadn’t been offered a full-time position. Now, after about two years of being under- and, at times, unemployed, her stress is starting to take a toll on her relationship with her boyfriend and friends (including me). How can I gently suggest that she solicit some outside help on her interview skills without insulting her? I am confident that is where the problem lies.  She’s capable and has a great work history, but I fear the first impression she makes in an interview is likely holding her back in such a tough job market. How do I broach this topic with her?


Kid Gloves

Dear Kid Gloves,

You want the best for your friend. You love her, you care about her, and you want her to succeed. And you want the best for your friendship, but it sounds like you’re not sure how much longer you’ll be able to tolerate your friend’s toxic stress. So, as a caring friend, you’re well within your friendship rights to suggest to your friend — let’s call her Francine — that something might be amiss in her approach to job-hunting.

I’d lead with the fact that you care about her and want her to find a job she loves and will succeed in, because you know how much her current state of un/der employment has been weighing on her. (Maybe leave out the part about how her stress is driving her significant other and all of her friends batty, for now). Then, be straightforward without being insulting. Say something like, “Francine, you know what I read online just yesterday? That the number one reason people end up not getting a job in this economy is because of some tiny mistake made in the interview.” (It’s okay to lie here.) Emphasize that interview skills are a thing that lots of people have to work on, not just her — maybe say something like, “I know when I started interviewing, I had no idea what I was doing, and then I got some great feedback from a colleague about [x], [y], and [z]” — and suggest that she speak to someone in the industry she wants to break into about what’s expected in an interview, and what makes a potential candidate stand out. At the very least, she can google “common interview mistakes.” Maybe point her toward this article, or this one, which highlight some mistakes that she might be making unwittingly, like bringing a drink into the interview, or failing to do proper research on the company with which she’s interviewing.

Hint: don't wear a bad wig and an old fashioned flight attendant's uniform to your interview
Hint: don’t wear a bad wig and an old-fashioned flight attendant’s uniform to your interview

Another possibility is that Francine’s resume might not be as sterling as you think. Does she have unexplained gaps in employment? Maybe the last two years of fruitlessly searching for a job are the reason she’s not succeeding. If so, she should consider some of these tips for how to fill in gaps on one’s resume, and how to address periods of unemployment in an interview.

The bottom line is that you don’t really know why Francine’s not succeeding. But letting her know that you care and are willing to help — either by running a mock interview with her, or directing her to someone who can, or reviewing her resume — is an important gesture. If she gets defensive, give her time to cool down — she’s probably a bit embarrassed. It’s tough not having a job at a time in life when most of your friends have careers. Hopefully she’ll give the whole thing some thought and take your advice to brush up on her interview skills. If not, then it’s out of your hands: she’s a grown-up. But I hope for her sake, and for your friendship’s sake, she works on her skills and lands her dream job. Good luck!




Book review Tuesday: An ode to Stephen King

Quick note before I jump into the normal Tuesday book talk: I am so upset, like everyone else, by the Boston Marathon bombings. I lived in the Boston area for three years and love that city, even though its people can be a wee bit prickly – hey, that’s part of its charm. I feel blessed that none of my friends who still live in the Boston area were hurt in the bombings, but I know that a lot of other people weren’t so lucky. My heart hurts for everyone affected by the bombings, and for our country. I take some comfort in stories like this, about the kindness that springs out of tragedy. Hang in there, Boston.

Today’s book review is a salute to one of our greatest and yet most maligned authors, Stephen King. I never considered myself a real King fan until the past year or so, but now I take every opportunity to defend the guy when he is smeared by schmancy literary types. I think Stephen King’s a genius, and I don’t care who knows it.

I became a Stephen King fan after being exposed to his work by Al’s dad and step-mom, David and Ginger. They live in Bangor, Maine, the same little city where King lives in his grand — and perhaps slightly spooky looking — red house with white trim and spidery front gate.

Stephen King's house in Bangor
Stephen King’s house in Bangor

Whenever Al and I are in Maine visiting family, I insist that we take a run or a walk past King’s house, first, because it’s awesome, and second, because I live in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the man himself.

David and Ginger also happen to be big Stephen King fans and have read most of his books (and there are a lot of them). I hadn’t read any of his books when I first started coming to Bangor, but I had seen a bunch of the movie adaptations: Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery, Dolores Claiborne. I remember for my birthday one year (I think it was my thirteenth) I had a sleepover with a bunch of girls during which we ate pizza, drank pop, and watched Carrie. My birthday is four days before Halloween and thus, I had some sort of “spooky” party nearly every year, so it seemed appropriate. Carrie, by the way, is an excellent — and SUPER scary — movie. That last scene? Holy mackerel. Gets me every time. *Shudders.* (By the way, they’re remaking Carrie and, to my surprise, it doesn’t look half bad).

Anyway, it wasn’t until Ginger gave me King’s 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that I began to really appreciate Stephen King. I read the book in early 2012, just as I was starting to eke out the rough ideas that would eventually become my first manuscript, and it was incredibly inspiring. On Writing is part memoir, part practical writing guide, and it includes a post-script discussing Stephen King’s horrific accident in 1999, when he was hit by a van while walking along a rural road in western Maine. Shortly after reading the book, in February 2012, I wrote this short review on Goodreads:

As someone who is about to embark on the slightly terrifying (but very exciting) journey to become a professional writer, I find King’s story immensely inspiring. His message is that to succeed in writing on a professional level, one must be persistent, dogged, and, to some extent, rigid. He insists on writing a minimum amount each day, for example, which is probably difficult on some days but has obviously worked to his advantage, considering how prolific he has been and continues to be. The book was also engaging because of King’s personal history: he writes about his struggles with alcoholism and his recovery from a near fatal car accident, but he also writes movingly about his relationship with his wife (who convinced him to get his draft of Carrie out of the trash can and give it another go) and reflects personally on some of his books. His writing advice tends toward the basic, in terms of grammar, structure, syntax, but the process-based advice is valuable. I especially like his perspective that stories exist in the universe and are waiting to be unearthed, and it is through the process of writing that we uncover them. Highly recommended for would-be writers and fans of King’s books.

Re-reading what I wrote then, it’s striking to me how much of King’s advice I have followed over the past year, and how helpful I’ve found it. For example, King writes a minimum of ten pages (or 2,000 words) a day when he is working on a novel. If it takes him an hour to do that, fine; if it takes him all day, fine. He explains:

On some days, those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.

Since I started writing my first manuscript, I’ve followed King’s formula: 2,000 words per weekday, minimum. It’s worked like a charm. I started a second manuscript last week and so far I have almost 29,000 words written. Thank you, Mr. King, for the excellent advice.

King also stresses that to be a good writer, one must read a lot and write a lot. Check and check. I love that my compulsive, drinking-from-the-fire-hose-style reading — a former guilty pleasure — is now part of my job. And I love the way King discusses how reading helps us become better writers:

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose — one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development  the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

Oh, I could go on and on about all of the utterly practical yet deeply inspiring advice in On Writing that has helped me so much over the past year, but I’ll let you read it for yourself. It’s a wonderful book.


After reading On Writing, I decided to delve into some of King’s fiction, and so over the last year I’ve read Bag of Bones (spooky but a bit long), The Dead Zone (a classic, also a bit long), and Salem’s Lot (creepy and, well, a bit long). Now I have The Shining sitting in my Kindle queue and I’m looking forward to reading it. Now, say what you will about King’s flaws — he’s long-winded, his dialogues can be cringe-worthy, why do all of his books have to involve a writer living in Maine?, his prose can be a tad clunky at times — but I dare anyone to argue that the man’s not a storytelling genius. Think of all the classic stories that came out of his brain, stories that are now so entrenched in popular culture that they’ve become truly iconic: Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Misery, The Shining, The Green Mile, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Needful Things, Thinner. I mean, you know you’ve made it when Family Guy does an episode parodying a movie based on one of your books, or Eminem works a reference into one of his songs (“I cannot grow old in ‘Salem’s Lot!”). Seriously – one dude, Stephen King, has come up with all of these stories. The mind boggles at the creativity.

As a writer, I feel indebted to King for his practical wisdom and for the admirable example he’s set: he’s prolific, he’s dedicated, he’s humble, and dang, he’s a unique thinker. I encourage you all to check out King’s work — starting with On Writing, if you’re at all inclined toward putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) — and see what you think. I’ll leave you with some of King’s closing wisdom from that book:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy… Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up.

Abstaining vs. moderating

I really enjoy Gretchen Rubin’s blog (and book) The Happiness Project. For one thing, I find Rubin quite inspiring; she’s another former lawyer who abandoned the law to become a writer, and she turned a personal betterment project into an incredibly successful (and lucrative) happiness empire. She also sent me a very kind and encouraging email when I wrote to her telling her that I, too, wanted to leave the law to seek a career in writing, which was so nice.

I think much of what Rubin says about happiness jives with me because she comes at happiness from a bit of a Type A, planner’s perspective, which resonates strongly with me, an ESFJ personality type who loves control and order, and also because one of her fundamental tenets is to know thyself, which suggests that everyone’s formula for individual happiness is going to be a bit different. The idea is that if you know your own preferences, weaknesses, and ways of being, you can better make choices for yourself that will boost your happiness. In other words, one happiness size does not fit all. I love that. It’s so empowering, this idea that we can tailor our choices to maximize our own happiness, isn’t it?

My happy place
My happy place

To help people to get to know themselves better, Rubin offers a number of quizzes that are designed to help identify certain fundamental personality traits that may have a large bearing on happiness. One of these quizzes is: are you an abstainer or a moderator?

The first time I took this quiz, I thought, “I am a classic abstainer. I do really well when I make temptations off-limits to myself, and I thrive on bright lines and rules.” But after the last few months of experimenting with abstention from alcohol and other foods, I’m starting to question whether the abstainer-moderator divide is really so black and white. As I was doing my month-long detox from alcohol, for instance, I felt empowered by its starkness. Completely cutting out booze was not that hard for me, but I felt sure that it would have been difficult to only allow myself one drink at each social occasion, for example. While I still think that may be true on the margins, now that I’m off the detox, I’ve found moderation with alcohol to be far easier than it’s ever been in the past. I’ve lowered my tolerance significantly, so now it’s easy for me on a night out to have one or two drinks and then stop, rather than three or four. So I’d say that alcohol is now firmly something that I’m able to consume in moderation.

However, there are some things that I absolutely cannot do in moderation. Frosting, for example. Non-organic peanut butter. Honey-mustard pretzels. Raisins. (I once had a run-in with a Sam’s Club industrial sized bag of raisins at a friend’s house during a high school study group session. Oh, the stomach cramps.) The list goes on (unfortunately). With other foods, though — chocolate, cookies, candy — it’s easy for me to have just a little and then stop. This strikes me as odd, because it seems that the part of my brain that allows me to have one bite of chocolate should be the same part of my brain that regulates peanut butter consumption, and yet, put me in a room with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon, and all hell will break loose. Why can’t my brain work the same way across foods? Dammit, brain! There’s undoubtedly some deep, dark psychological reason for this inconsistency, but it honestly might just come down to the fact that peanut butter is so gall-derned delicious.

In any case, thinking about abstention vs. moderation is a useful exercise, not only when trying to lose weight, but when thinking longer-term about happiness. I know that in the longer term, I am much happier when I cook healthy meals at home, even though going out to a restaurant for a decadent meal may provide a very short-term happiness boost. Learning to balance the enjoyment I get from going out to eat with the satisfaction I feel from eating wholesomely at home is one of the things I’ve gotten better at over the past several months, and that’s a good thing. I consider it a sign of progress that I am able to float between abstention and moderation, choosing one strategy or the other depending on the situation. But there are still slip-ups. To err is human, right? Anyway, I guess this is all part of growing up. One of these days, I’ll figure it out (hopefully before I die of a peanut butter overdose).

So what are you, an abstainer, a moderator, or something in between? And am I the only one who loses my sh*t around those Snyder’s honey-mustard pretzel bite things? (Thanks Gretchen Rubin for the food for thought!)

Sexism and trolling

I wrote a piece yesterday reacting to what struck me as a completely bogus op-ed in the Wall Street Journal hypothesizing that women at Harvard Law School (“HLS”) don’t perform as well as men because Harvard has lower admission standards for women. I am not going to link to that crackpot article again because I don’t want to give the author any more page views than I already have. It occurred to me after I wrote the piece that by responding to the WSJ article, I was feeding into exactly what the author wanted: attention. I reacted to a patently outrageous statement he made, thereby bringing traffic to his site. The author, my friends, is a classic troll.

For those of you who are new to the Internets, a “troll,” according to Wikipedia, is “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” The author of the WSJ post is undeniably a troll. And so are his many readers who flocked to my blog to tell me that I am stupid and wrong and a woman and stupid and wrong. Oh yes, the trolls were out in full force yesterday. So let’s talk trolling, shall we?

No, not this kind.
No, not this kind.

I woke up this morning, read through several insulting comments I received on my blog, perused an article written by a woman I’ve never met impugning my analytical skills (yet offering zero analysis of what I had said in my piece), and felt deflated. It wasn’t that the trolls had convinced me that I was, in fact, stupid, but it was just the fact that there are so many people out there whose first reaction to a piece that they don’t agree with is to launch ad hominem attacks on its author. Rather than engaging with my piece on its level, these people chose to attack me – my intellect, my work ethic, my understanding of statistics, my imagined political agenda – and that’s disappointing. I don’t know why I expect better from strangers on the internet, but I do, perhaps because I wouldn’t dream of going on someone’s personal blog and calling them an idiot because I didn’t agree with something they said. I also would never presume to know about someone’s personal experience if I hadn’t lived it myself.

Not only did these commenters jump on me, but they did it in a particularly gendered way, which is heaped in several layers of irony, given that I had written a post about my experiences as a woman at Harvard Law School, and the principal reaction from the trolls seemed to be: a) sexism doesn’t exist, b) you’re clearly hysterical for even suggesting that it does, and c) you need to accept that women are dumber than men, and any disagreement with that proposition signals that you’re a dumb broad who needs to be shut up. Here are some actual comments I received (not all of them appear on the blog because I started trashing comments that were insulting to me):

“You have a lot of passion, which is commendable, but passion without control and diligence is blind.”

“I was unsure about the WSJ piece before reading your response, but now I’m much more confident admissions standards are lower for women.”

“Sadly, Ms. Green’s response does little to bolster anyone’s opinion of the analytical skills possessed by at least one female HLS grad.”

“You are countering all logic with hyper-emotional political correctness (and when that political correctness fails to win an argument, you are countering it with the old ‘not sure how that’s relevant’). Good grief.”

“Perhaps there would be more female cum laudes and Supreme Court clerks if HLS made more of an effort to screen out students such as yourself who look good on paper but aren’t willing to put in the proverbial 110%?”

These comments all fall into one of the three buckets I mentioned above, but can basically be summarized as: “YOU’RE HYSTERICAL.”

Regarding the first comment, in particular, which contends that I have “passion without control and diligence,” my clever friend Seth responded with the following: “He/she may have a good point. I mean, how have you really demonstrated control and diligence? Merely by high achievements in high school leading to an offer from a college with a low acceptance rate, excelling there and on a difficult standardized test where you most likely were >2 sd above the mean, and then completing three rigorous years at a world-renowned law school which prompted this whole conversation? I mean, I think it’s gonna take a *-*little*-* more than 20+ years of academic excellence to really rate a high score on what, i’m sure, is a very well validated and unbiased instrument to assess control and diligence that the commentator/commentatrix (it’s a word, shut-up) is using.”


I really don’t feel the need to justify myself or my choices to these people. They’re trolls. They live under dark Internet bridges and dance for joy when people like me come down to play with them, and I’m not doing it. But, as a human being with emotions, it is a bit of a shock to the system to read one insult after another from complete strangers. But what can you do? Some people are asshats and will always be asshats, and there’s nothing I can say or do to change that. C’est la vie.

I will say, though, that the older I get, and the more bull-crap like this that I encounter on the Internet, the more of a feminist I become. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment where I never thought much about my gender or how it related to my performance in school or my career options. Both of my parents are successful, educated people and they never made a big deal out of my gender. They just believed in me, encouraged me, and pushed me to do my best. And I did. It wasn’t until adulthood, when I started encountering jerks like the author of the WSJ piece and his minions, that I realized that gender discrimination actually is a problem that I should be concerned with, because there are so many people who genuinely believe that women are less capable or less intelligent than men. Honestly, I never thought that people thought this way until they started coming out of the woodworks to let me know how stupid they think I am. The realization that there are people who think I’m dumb, no matter how many prestigious schools I attend or degrees I rack up, was shocking at first, but now I’ve come to accept it as reality. As I’ve engaged more and more with the Internet over the years, blogging and posting on social media, I’ve been subjected to more and more attacks on my intellect by virtue of my gender (remember this?). It’s eye-opening, to say the least.

I suspect that a man who goes out of his way to travel to someone’s personal blog to post uninformed personal attacks on the author is broadcasting more about himself and his own insecurities than he is about the author. Someone who is secure in his own intellect does not feel the need to denigrate someone else’s intelligence. The tired lament that men are somehow subjugated by women’s success – or women’s desire for success – is pitiful, really. What kind of man whines that he is being disadvantaged by women wanting to do better? Pathetic! So I suppose we should all feel sorry for these guys and send them positive, healing vibes through the Internet tubes… But in the meantime, I’m going to keep trashing their comments.

Suck it, trolls.

Women at Harvard Law School

I’m a graduate of Harvard Law School (Class of 2009, last class to have letter grades, represent!), but day to day, I don’t think about my experiences at law school much, now that I’ve completely stepped away (/ run screaming) from the practice of law.

hls grad

Over the last week, though, two separate things have made me think critically about my time at Harvard Law School (“HLS”). The first was an interaction I had with a woman who is preparing to leave her lucrative consulting job to go to HLS, not because she wants to be a lawyer but because she thinks it will be an “interesting academic experience” (hint: I think this is a bad idea), and the second was this article in the Wall Street Journal, which a male classmate of mine from HLS posted on his Facebook page, inviting comment from his female HLS friends. I read the article and I had a lot of, um, feelings about it, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate them. So I sat on it for a day and I still felt those same feelings (anger, frustration, righteous indignation), so I thought I’d take a crack at responding to the article here.

First, for those too lazy to read the WSJ article, it was responding to this video produced by the Harvard Women’s Law Association (“WLA”), entitled “Shatter the Ceiling,” which discusses the fact that women, by traditional measures such as numbers of cum laude graduates per year and Supreme Court clerkships obtained, do not perform as well as men at HLS. The video includes interviews several female faculty members and students and they speculate on why it might be the case that women at HLS don’t do as well as their male counterparts. I watched the entire video and much of it rang true to me. Did I agree with every single thing that was said? No. (See, e.g., the student claiming that women are being “silenced” at HLS). But overall, I thought the video was thoughtful and hit on important issues that we should probably be thinking about in a larger conversation about how law school should evolve in order to produce better (and perhaps even happier) lawyers.

The WSJ article, however, calls the video “offensive” and harps on a metaphor offered in the video by one female faculty member, Lani Grunier, likening women at law school to canaries in a coal mine. She said:

“So I think what I would say to you is probably captured by the miners’ canary metaphor–that the women in law school are the canary in the coal mines. So they’re more vulnerable when the atmosphere in the coal mines gets toxic. The canary, because of its different respiratory system, is more likely to start gasping for air, and that’s a sign that the atmosphere is toxic not just for the canary but for the miners as well. So it’s a signal to evacuate.”

The author of the WSJ article, who is apparently quite literal minded, finds this metaphor terribly offensive – how dare this woman compare female students to birds! – and goes on to conclude that, rather than representing a systemic imbalance, female students’ failure to thrive at HLS signals instead that HLS is admitting women who simply aren’t smart enough to keep up with the men. Now who’s being offensive, WSJ?

Let's tell some truth about HLS here.
Let’s tell some truth about HLS here.

I read the WSJ article twice, thinking it was perhaps meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and determined that, in fact, it was not. I got hung up both times on this part:

“The WLA’s hypothesis is discrimination against women. Our hypothesis is discrimination in favor of women. We suspect that in an effort to maintain a near-even sex ratio, Harvard Law holds female applicants to lower standards than male ones.”

First of all, this is the first I’ve heard about Harvard’s struggle to maintain a near-even sex ratio. We’ve all heard over the last five to ten years about how women outperform men in college; even the New York Times wrote about it. So certainly there’s no shortage of qualified female applicants to law school, and surely Harvard isn’t so hard up for women that they’re admitting dummies to make up the quotas.

Secondly, the idea that women at HLS are just dumber than their male counterparts is not only offensive, but also, based on my three years of attending the school, markedly untrue. Let me give you an example from my own experience. Both my husband and I went to HLS; we overlapped for one year and he graduated two years after me, in 2011. I happen to have gotten a higher LSAT score than him (although I’m not sure he knows that – hi, honey), but by most measures, he performed much better than I did at law school. Sure, his graduating class didn’t have the dreaded letter grades that we had, but our experiences were largely the same in terms of challenging coursework, clinicals, journals, etc. The WSJ would look at his cum laude diploma and my plain diploma and conclude that the reason he did better was because Harvard had lowered its standards by admitting me, the dumb girl. But if anything, I looked better on paper than my husband when we each applied to law school, at least in terms of raw numbers. And I suspect this is true for quite a few women at HLS: they were superstars in college or grad school, they’re brilliant thinkers and writers, they are competitive and accustomed to success, but something about the environment at HLS makes them wilt a little. In other words, the problem is with HLS, not with the women. I am struggling to understand why the WSJ finds this proposition offensive. Is it because it admits that women at HLS don’t do as well as men? We have the numbers in front of us. We can see that that’s the case. Or is it because it raises uncomfortable implications about the direction that HLS needs to move in order to guarantee that all of its students – not just half – perform to the best of their abilities?

In the WLA video, some of the women suggest that perhaps the Socratic Method is to blame, that the preferred method of instruction at HLS has a disparate impact on women. I think there could be some value to that hypothesis. I definitely spoke less frequently at HLS than I did in my college classes, and I think I developed some of that reticence to speak after being told, in no uncertain terms by the professors and sometimes by other students, that I was Wrong, with a capital W. I never would have believed this before law school, but I think there is something about the way women are socialized — to second-guess ourselves, to qualify our assertions by tacking on “I think” or “I could be wrong” or “maybe” — that is especially vulnerable to the black-and-whiteness of the Socratic smack-down. But I don’t think that’s the whole issue. Besides, I actually enjoyed my super-Socratic classes, and my proudest achievement at HLS — and I’m going to unabashedly brag here a little bit because I still can’t believe it actually happened — was snagging an A+ in a scarily Socratic constitutional law class. So we can’t put all the blame on the Socratic method itself, although I think it might be worth examining the way that the method is implemented, particularly by male professors.

Indeed, as disturbing as it is to talk about, there’s a fair amount of residual sexism hanging around the hallowed halls of HLS, and it often reveals itself in the ways professors treat their students. I had one professor in particular who was notorious for calling on men and ignoring women in his lectures. Even his tone when he spoke to female students was different: condescending, impatient, annoyed. We all noticed it, even the male students. Then, this professor made his preference official by emailing a select portion of the class at the end of our first year and letting these students know that he’d be happy to write them recommendation letters. Guess what? These lucky stars were almost ALL male. I think he extended his invitation to one woman, out of a class of about forty women! I was shocked when this happened – and grossed out and angry and frustrated. This professor’s actions sent sent a signal to all of his female students who had just slogged their way through their first year of law school: you’re not the rising stars here. Embrace the mediocrity.

And that was one of the weirdest things for me about HLS. I went from being a very high academic achiever to being, with the exception of a few classes, pretty mediocre. I was a solid A-/B+ kind of girl. My grades started to improve as time went on, creeping more frequently into the A range, but the truth was, I wasn’t that upset about not being at the top of my class. I guess I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices that being at the top of the class requires at HLS. After all, I wasn’t trying for a Supreme Court clerkship or any clerkship at all. I wanted to enjoy myself, to go salsa dancing and to parties and to cross-register for Portuguese classes at the College. I wasn’t willing, as some of my classmates were, to hole up on weekends to outline cases or read secondary sources that weren’t assigned by the professor. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to succeed at law school, but I also wasn’t willing to become a bloodthirsty competitor, Paper Chase-style, to make it happen. I wonder if I knew deep down, even then, that a career in the law wasn’t the right path for me, and that I’d look back on my time at HLS with fondness, glad that I took the time to make friends, attend parties, go to the gym, and take trips. How much did those choices have to do with my gender? I don’t know. But I’m glad I had the experience I did.

In any case, we can’t all be Supreme Court clerks. And maybe not all of us want to be. But we all want to succeed, and I think Harvard should take a long, hard look at the reasons women aren’t succeeding as they should (hint: the answer is not “women are dumb”).

What do you guys think?

Book review Tuesday: What Was Lost, by Catherine O’Flynn

Last week I read Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 (which is especially impressive since it was O’Flynn’s first novel). It’s a quick read but it also packs an emotional punch, and I am still thinking about it days after finishing it.

what was lost

The novel begins in 1984 in the Midlands in England. Ten year-old Kate Meaney has set up her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends her free time patrolling the local mall, Green Oaks, casing the joint for suspicious individuals and keeping meticulous notes in her detective’s notebook. She is accompanied by Mickey, her toy monkey and partner at Falcon Investigations. Kate, whose mother abandoned her as a baby and whose father recently died, uses her detection activities to escape the realities of her life, including the fact that her grandmother wants to send her away to a boarding school and she has few friends other than Adrian, a twenty-two year old man who works at his father’s sweet shop.

Then Kate disappears.

The narrative skips forward nearly twenty years, to 2003, where we meet two people who work at Green Oaks, the mall where Kate conducted most of her detection. Without giving anything away, it becomes apparent that both of these people — Kurt, a security guard, and Lisa, a manager at a music store in the mall — are in some way connected to Kate Meaney. They learn about their shared connection, almost by accident, after Kurt starts seeing images of Kate appear on the CCTV cameras late at night.

The story is partly the story of Kate and partly the bittersweet love story of Kurt and Lisa. I was intrigued by both aspects of the book, including the central mystery about what happened to Kate. What I loved most, though, was how well O’Flynn captured what it is like to be a child lost in her own world of “detection.” O’Flynn excerpts Kate’s detective journal and absolutely nails the perspective of a curious, imaginative child. Here is a bit I particularly loved:

Thursday, 19 April

Man with the suntan and checked sports jacket in Vanezi’s again. He has new steel-rimmed dark glasses. Think he is American, looks like bad men in Columbo. Suspect he is a hired assassin staking out a subject. Beginning to think this could be the waitress with no neck. He stared at her a lot. Have yet to discover motive for her murder, but will attempt to engage her in casual conversation tomorrow, and if necessary I will warn her, but need more evidence on “Mr. Tan” first.

When leaving he dropped a lighter as he passed my table; think it was an attempt to view my notes. I quickly slid the book under my menu and he disguised his frustration. He is perhaps beginning to realize I am a worthy opponent.

When I was a kid, I used to do similar things with my friends: we’d “spy” on people and often feel sure that we were witnesses to illegal hijinks just waiting to happen. It was so thrilling to feel that we were on the verge of discovering something big; O’Flynn brings the reader right back to that feeling with Kate’s journal.

The character of Kate, in particular, is so lovable and heart-rending, a feeling which is compounded by the utter unfairness of her disappearance. The book is undeniably sad, but at the end of it, I had hope for the surviving characters; it didn’t leave me feeling depressed or deflated, a response to literature which I loathe. There were elements of hope and happiness mixed in with the tragedy.

Recommended for anyone looking to dip a toe into emotionally rich Man-Booker prize literature without diving into a thick literary tome.


Edited to add: After writing this review, I looked online and read a few reader reviews of this book and realized that I failed to mention the role that the shopping center, Green Oaks, plays in this novel. Indeed, the action of all three characters’ stories is centered around the mall and the author sprinkles in some heavy-handed allusions to the dehumanizing corporate power of the Shopping Mall, but for some reason, the descriptions of the mall itself did not resonate with me as powerfully as the glimpses into the inner emotional lives of the characters did. Yes, to some extent, all three characters’ emotional arcs are tied up with the mall itself, but to me, that was probably the least interesting aspect of the book. I just wanted to insert this little addendum lest it seem that I completely missed the whole mall aspect. I didn’t; I just didn’t care about it that much.